The border with an enemy country was unexpectedly friendly. Smiling soldiers were ushering in dozens of mothers carrying children into Israel to receive free medical care as part of the Israeli army’s Operation Good Neighbor.
We had arrived at our destination an hour or so earlier, at around 4 a.m., guided by an IDF officer and with only stars in the sky as light. Despite Israel and Syria being officially at war, the soldiers next to us were relaxed; they have been doing this once a week.
After passing through the metal detector and quick security procedures, the mothers and children were officially inside the Jewish state. As the sun began to rise over the old minefields we had walked through, the mothers were guided by IDF soldiers to a bus that would drive them to their next destination – the Galilee Medical Center, in Nahariya, an hour and a half away.
Major Dr. Sergei Kotikov, one of the senior IDF officers involved in Operation Good Neighbor, told The Jerusalem Post Magazine
that this scene is repeated weekly.
He has taken part in more than 50 such operations bringing injured and sick Syrian children into Israel.
“The Syrian war came to a point where people started showing up on our border looking for help. They had no trust in their government and could not rely on it – instead turning to a country that for 50 years they were told was the enemy,” Kotikov said as we walked to the border fence earlier that morning.
Jerusalem and Damascus have never had diplomatic relations and have been officially at war since Israel was established in 1948. In 1967 Israel took control of the 1,200 square kilometers of the Golan Heights from Syria during the Six Day War and unilaterally annexed the area in 1981.
The move was not recognized by the international community, and prior to the outbreak of Syria’s civil war was seen by some as a possible negotiating point for a peace treaty with Syria. The Golan Heights are still a point of contention between the two countries, and in April 2016 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated during the first-ever cabinet meeting held on the Golan that Jerusalem would never cede the territory to Syria
“It is time that the international community recognized reality,” Netanyahu said. “Whatever happens on the other side of the border, the border itself will not move. Secondly, after 50 years, it is time that the international community realized that the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”
Seven years into Syria’s catastrophic civil war, there are more than 6.1 million internally displaced persons and nearly three million living in besieged or hard-toaccess areas. Some families have made their way to the Syrian Golan to escape the fighting and live in tents on Israel’s border.
Recently the regime of Bashar Assad has been regaining territory from al-Qaida and other rebel groups along Israel’s northern border. The fighting and offensives on the Syrian side have led to errant mortars landing in Israeli territory with the IDF retaliating against regime positions.
While Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting, the IDF launched Operation Good Neighbor in June 2016 with the goal of increasing the aid given to Syrian civilians while maintaining the principle of non-involvement in the Syrian civil war.
“This project has significant impact on Israel’s security,” a senior IDF officer stated in July. “We have learned from the Americans, who lost the support of much of the Iraqi population. We realized that we could do more for the population near our border than what we were doing at the time.”
The operation officially began in 2016, but the IDF has been treating wounded and sick Syrians since 2013 with the help of the 210th Division, which was established in July of that year with the goal of securing Israel’s northern borders while preparing for any escalation on the other side of the border.
Treating injured Syrians remains a central part of Operation Good Neighbor. More than 4,000 Syrians have been brought into Israel to receive medical treatment.
Some 1,000 children have been treated in Israel since the operation began, including 685 in 2017 alone. About a dozen babies have so far been born in Israel to Syrian women.
As part of Operation Good Neighbor, the IDF has also been working with international organizations and donors to transfer aid to more than 200,000 Syrians living in villages close to the Israeli border. In the past year alone, some 700 tons of food and flour; 542,880 liters of gas; 174 tons of clothes; 13 generators; 400 items of medical equipment, such as incubators and surgery room equipment; and 113 pallets holding 2,214 boxes of medicines have been given to Syrian civilians with the assistance of the IDF.
In addition, 6,351 packages of diapers have been sent across the border as well as 600 meters of piping to re-establish ruined water infrastructure, providing running water to 5,000 people in the villages. Mobile caravans have also been delivered to Syrians across the border to use as clinics and classrooms.
While most of this humanitarian aid has been donated by NGOs from around the world, some has also been directly provided by the Israeli government.
Israel also operates Mazor Ladach (Bandaging Those in Need), a field clinic located in an unused military post in the southern Golan Heights on the Syrian border. Built by the IDF and run by an American organization called Frontier Alliance International, the IDF’s 210th Division helped train the staff and has the ability to expand to 18 doctors, providing care to more than 500 patients a day. While it will not be able to care for severely wounded Syrians or those who may need surgery, it provides care similar to that of any medical clinic.
The compound’s security was a top priority during the building process. The IDF constructed a secure bunker to protect the emergency staff from stray mortar fire due to the fighting right across the border. In October, a volunteer physician working at the field clinic was hit by a stray bullet from fighting across the border. He received treatment in the field clinic after being lightly wounded The IDF realized that Israel also needs to provide follow- up visits for these children, especially those who have chronic illnesses.
“Once a week, a busload of sick children comes into Israel,” Kotikov said. He is in contact with Syrian doctors across the border who triage the injured to determine what sort of medical care they need in Israel.
“We have a warm relationship with the other side,” he said. Nevertheless, “this is a military operation for all intents and purposes.”
Those who arrive at the Syria-Israel border are both combatants and civilians. According to officials, nearly three-quarters of the wounded treated by Israel are men of fighting age; the remainder are women and children.
Nearly three-quarters of the patients are transported by ambulance to the Galilee Medical Center, and most of the rest to Ziv Medical Center in Safed. Some of the others are taken to hospitals such as Sheba Medical Center in the center of the country.
According to Sharon Mann, International Liaison official at the Galilee Medical Center’s Department of International Affairs, more than 2,200 injured Syrians have been treated at the hospital since 2013, 40% of them women and children.
“We are not the closest hospital to Syria, but we have the most advanced treatment available. We are seeing the most serious and complicated cases, including ballistic injuries,” she said, explaining that one patient, a 29-year-old man who was missing half of his face was admitted to the hospital and stayed for over a year receiving facial reconstruction surgery.
“We are also seeing a lot of children who were injured after being hit by snipers,” she continued.
Kotikov notes there have been peaks in the fighting where more children have been injured; there has also been an increase in the past six months.
Dr. Leonid Kogan, head of plastic surgery and burns at the Galilee Medical Center, has treated hundreds of injured Syrians since 2013.
“It was weird at first that there were Syrians coming here because of the tense relations between our countries,” he told the Magazine. “But we never had any issues treating them. They were very afraid at the beginning.
They didn’t really believe that they were here, in Israel.
“In 2013 we were seeing an increase in acute trauma injuries,” he continued, adding, “There is no other hospital in Israel, perhaps in the entire Middle East, that treats the number of patients with trauma injuries that we do.”
Now most patients are coming with chronic illness or complications. While none of the children the Magazine spoke with were injured from the fighting, many of them have not had access to adequate medical care because the disastrous civil war that has been raging in Syria for the past six years, a war that has destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure.
Nour, 14, was injured seven months ago when a gas canister exploded in her home, causing extreme burns to her face, neck and armpits. Her mother, Yousra, brought her as far as Damascus where she hoped she could find proper care for her daughter.
“I wanted Nour, my eldest daughter, to get the care she needed. I asked for permission to come to Israel four months ago because I knew she would get the best care here,” Yousra told the Magazine through a translator.
Unfortunately, Kogan remarked, due to the fact that seven months had passed since Nour was injured, her situation “is much worse than it could have been,” explaining that she urgently needs surgery.
While Nour may have months of surgery and rehabilitation ahead of her, her mother, sitting quietly next to her, said she was “still in shock” that she was in Israel and that she was not afraid to be here, a sentiment shared by everyone else in the room.
Nine-year-old Fatima came with her mother, who was previously in Israel in December with her older son who needed eye surgery. Drinking chocolate milk with a large smile and eyes full of hope, Fatima said she was happy to be in Israel.
Many of the other children who entered Israel on that cold dark winter’s night were too young to speak to a journalist, but one 14-year-old waved us over, eager to share his story. He explained through a translator that he had been hit by a car six years earlier and was suffering from a ruptured tendon in his leg, an injury that recently had been causing excruciating pain since he had never received proper medical treatment.
“I was not afraid to come to Israel and when I entered and saw the soldiers with their guns I was not afraid either,” he said with a broad smile. He explained that he asked for permission to enter Israel less than a month ago, sure that Israeli doctors would be able to help him.
“Everyone who comes here only has good things to say about the treatment they receive,” said his mother, who refused to be identified due the risks she and her family face if it is found out that she came to Israel.
Another Syrian mother echoed her comments, saying that she had heard that Israel was helping her neighbors’ sick children. Originally from the Yarmouk area of Damascus, she fled with her nine children to southern Syria to get away from the fighting.
“It is my first time in Israel,” she said, explaining that she asked for permission for her son, who suffers from problems in his joints, to be seen by Israeli physicians.
“All I want is for my son to get the right treatment. I used to see Israel as an occupying power,” she related as we waited for a doctor to call her son’s name, “but not anymore. My whole opinion of Israel has changed.”
A Syrian doctor who accompanied the sick kids and their mothers to the Galilee Medical Center told said he has been doing this for the past eight months.
“I was initially approached by another doctor in Syria to take part in this project, and I said no. It wasn’t because of politics; it was just that I had no time,” he said. It took some convincing, but in the end he got involved and he does not regret his decision.
“I was afraid at first to come into Israel,” he said. “It was different, and it was scary because of what I was taught about this country as I was growing up. But it is not scary anymore. A lot of doctors are afraid to join because of the risks of being found out. But my name is already out there; people know what I am doing. I am torn between helping these children and losing my own life, but I will continue to help.”